By Amanda Litvinov
Oklahoma teacher Jennifer Esau decided to run for office well before the nine-day educator walkout in April that brought national attention to the state’s school funding crisis.
But Esau’s participation in the Red for Ed movement—she traveled from Claremore to Oklahoma City to rally every day at the capitol—and the overwhelming public support for the walkout did strengthen her resolve to fight for a seat in the state Senate.
“People who know me well know that I don’t love being in the spotlight,” said Esau. “But our legislators have done so poorly over the past decade on funding schools, no matter how much we lobbied and rallied at the Capitol. I felt I had to step up.”
It got to the point, she said, that “doing nothing felt even scarier than candidate forums and fund raising.”
Esau first came to that realization during the summer of 2015, and with the support of her family, began to explore what it would take to run. She kicked off her campaign in earnest a year ago, hiring a campaign consultant to help with things like fund raising, and started building relationships outside of the education world she knows so well.
A National Board Certified Teacher, Esau has worked in early elementary special education for 18 years.
At least 112 of the record 800 Oklahomans who filed to run for office this year have ties to education—teachers, education support professionals, administrators, retired educators, and citizens with an immediate family member working in education—according to the Oklahoma Education Association. Forty-eight of those candidates are OEA members.
Esau is unopposed in the primary election, which takes place this Tuesday.
Speaking up for students—a family tradition
Jennifer Esau grew up outside of Tulsa in Claremore, where she still lives and works. She followed in her mother’s footsteps in more ways than one. Not only was her mom a special education teacher with Claremore Public Schools, she also stood up as an activist to protest the underfunding of schools.
More than 25 years ago, her mom rallied to help pass House Bill 1017, a landmark overhaul of Oklahoma’s education system that brought new investment in education that was intended to build over time.
Unfortunately that victory also inspired some conservatives to launch a broad anti-tax movement that took hold. Over years of declining revenues, legislators routinely balanced the budget through education cuts, which led to Oklahoma’s rock bottom rankings in education funding and educator pay.
As conditions deteriorated in the schools, Esau became more and more active in her association. She is now president of her local and serves on the OEA board.
“Everything intensified over the past decade, which correlates to the time my opponent has served in the legislature,” Esau notes.
Crowded classrooms and old textbooks are only part of the story. “As a special education teacher I can tell you that students are not receiving all of the therapies that would benefit them. One of the biggest losses is paraeducator positions and hours. Many of my students, especially our lower-income students, depend on those relationships.”
On November 6, Esau will challenge incumbent state Sen. Marty Quinn. He not only opposed the walkout, he was forced to issue an apology after snapping at rallying teachers that they should just “get a new profession.”
Without a doubt, educators, parents, and students scored a huge win for Oklahoma students. The legislature will invest an additional $50 million in schools through the formula for general operations in FY 2019. Teachers will receive the largest salary increase in history, averaging $6,100, and support professionals will also receive a state mandated raise.
“What we accomplished this spring is unprecedented and is being recognized across the country as a sign that teachers can make a huge difference with a collective voice,” said OEA President Alicia Priest.
But did legislators do all they could to create sustainable sources of education funding? No, says OEA leadership.
Esau agrees. Her teenage daughter aspires to become a third-generation teacher, and while Esau is proud of that, she worries that Isabelle would better off in a state that isn’t playing catch up on school funding and teacher pay.
Recently, one of Esau’s colleagues beat out 79 other candidates for a teaching job in nearby Bentonville, Arkansas. His salary will increase by $25,000 in the first year alone.
Esau understands why he must make the move, but something else keeps going through her mind: “What makes Arkansas’ kids more deserving of a great history teacher than our kids here in Oklahoma?”
She hopes that next year, she can ask that question from the floor of the state Senate.